With thousands of soldiers in olive-green uniforms amassed along Israel’s border with Gaza and raising fears of a ground offensive similar to that of 2008-09, Prague, despite growing international concerns and criticism toward the Middle East conflict’s main players, remains an unequivocal supporter of Israel.
“The Czech Republic fully recognizes Israel’s right to self-defense against rocket barrages carried out by the militant organizations in the Gaza Strip while underlining the importance of avoiding civilian casualties,” read an official Foreign Affairs Ministry statement Nov. 14, when the most recent escalation began with the assassination of Hamas military chief Ahmad Jabari by Israeli troops.
Rockets flying in both the direction of Gaza and Israel had claimed the lives of 110 Palestinians and three Israelis as of press time. The conflict four years ago cost the lives of more than 1,400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis.
Foreign Affairs Minister Karel Schwarzenberg said he would support a possible Israeli ground invasion, and Prime Minister Petr Nečas received a telephone call from his Israeli counterpart, Benjamin Netanyahu, over the Nov. 17-18 weekend informing him of the latest developments in the conflict.
Czech-Israeli relations are unique not just within the European Union but also worldwide. Only five other EU member states – Germany, Poland, Bulgaria, Italy and the Netherlands – could boast of such close ties. Some experts even call the mutual strong ties a phenomenon, adding Czech politicians are often uncritical toward Israel.
“The saying goes that the Czech Republic is an even more reliable partner of Israel than the United States,” says Marek Čejka, a local Middle East analyst. “Obviously, the importance of the countries is hardly comparable, but it illustrates the picture.”
The key bond between Prague and Tel Aviv predates Israel’s existence. In 1930, some 350,000 Jews lived in Czechoslovakia, creating a vibrant community with a rich cultural and intellectual history. Then-President Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk was the first head of state who officially visited the British Mandate for Palestine. After World War II, ties remained firm as the Czechoslovakia in 1947 supplied the newly emergent Israel with crucial weapons.
In the following years, Moscow’s official line changed that, swaying local communist policy in favor of Israel’s Arab neighbors. Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat made frequent visits to Prague, and hundreds of students from Gaza and the West Bank studied at local universities. The return of democracy in the Czech Republic witnessed another change in foreign policy, and close relations between Israel and the Czech Republic were quickly re-established.
“The Czech Republic is considered a safe country for Israelis and is unique in the absence of anti-Semitism,” says Jaakov Levy, the Israeli ambassador to Prague. “It is hard to say where the roots of the Czech attachment toward Israel lie. The interesting fact is that the bond remains. It doesn’t matter if there is a leftist or rightist government ruling the country,” says Šádí Shanaáh, director of the Czech-Arab Centre for Cultural Dialogue in Prague. “The political justification [for this] sometimes resembles a psychological obsession.”
Shanaáh finds the question of human rights – the cornerstone of Czech diplomacy – worth pondering in the case of Czech-Israeli relations.
“It seems strange to see Schwarzenberg sitting at the same table with his counterpart [Avigdor Lieberman], whom even the Israeli press calls a xenophobe and fascist for his propositions to drive Palestinians into the Jordan or, as he said, throw a nuclear bomb on Gaza.”
A common bond
Today, Israel is the fourth-largest market for Czech exporters after the United States, China and India. Aside from trade, the partnership has extended in the past years to the fields of security and innovation.
“The partnership is strategic … based on values,” Nečas told Parliament last year in an address explaining the countries’ relations, stressing that Israel is surrounded by foreign countries ready to annex or even destroy it. “If it reminds you of our own history, the era between the First and Second World War, the reminder isn’t accidental. … In many aspects, Europe starts in Israel.”
Czech and Israeli foreign policies are also close on issues such as Iran’s nuclear program and the question of Palestinian statehood. Last year, Prague voted against the Palestinian Authority’s statehood bid at the United Nations.
“I remember the days when Czech politicians used to say Prague has a balanced policy toward the Middle East. That was about 10 years ago,” said Czech Radio’s correspondent in Jerusalem, Břetislav Tureček. “Today, they don’t even pretend. Former Foreign Affairs Minister Cyril Svoboda proudly told me once that his colleagues in Brussels would greet him with ‘Shalom.’ ”
The connection between the two countries culminated in Netanyahu’s visit to Prague last May along with his cabinet. The Israeli prime minister used the occasion to call the Czech Republic a “best friend in Europe.”
“Israel’s government holds such meetings periodically only with Germany and Italy and most recently also with Bulgaria,” Levy said.
Critics’ demands to address such issues as the presence of illegal Jewish settlements in the West Bank or the violation of the rights of Palestinians fell flat during the visit.
“Czech ambassadors claim they discuss these issues informally, but I doubt that after a meeting they tell their Israeli counterparts, ‘Don’t enlarge settlements in the West Bank,’ ” Shanaáh said.
Additionally, at least once a year, the lower house or Senate leads a delegation to Jerusalem, and President Václav Klaus recently canceled his own annual sojourn due to the renewed tensions. According to Tureček, visits have been so extensive they sometimes cause awkwardness among hosts.
“Israelis appreciate every friendly voice. That’s how they perceive the Czechs. But I wouldn’t say that in practice Prague gains any exceptional respect for that,” he said. “Otherwise, it wouldn’t take 21 years of renewed diplomatic relations for the Israeli prime minister to visit Prague.”
“There is nothing wrong with having a strong ally, but everything has to have boundaries,” Čejka added. “The Czech Republic could be influential, even while being critical. I don’t think that is happening at all.”
Another government-to-government meeting between Czech and Israeli ministers is slated to be held next year in Jerusalem.